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Comcast's Jack of All Trades

Although the varied and substantial challenges facing the cable industry on the legislative, regulatory and judicial fronts sometimes overwhelm individuals who have a toe in one of those camps, for Comcast's David L. Cohen, who has a foot in all of them, it's just another day at the office.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has vowed to craft a law that will hold cable programming to standards of decency similar to broadcast's. Meanwhile, over at the FCC, new Chairman Kevin Martin intends to take a tougher stance on indecency than outgoing Chairman Michael Powell—and that could mean other types of regulatory scrutiny of the industry as well.

Looming over it all is Congress as a whole, which is considering a rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Now is a good time for the cable industry to be seen in the best possible light.

And that is where Cohen comes in. Although his title is fairly plain—simply executive vice president of Comcast—his responsibilities touch on corporate communications, government affairs, public affairs, corporate administration and serving as senior counselor to CEO Brian Roberts. In the space of less than a decade, Cohen, 49, who was named this year's Vanguard Award recipient for Government & Community Relations, has leapt from law to politics, back to law and into the cable industry in a pivotal role with the nation's largest cable operator. That he does it so ably is why he'll receive the award at cable's National Show this week.

“As you're doing those jobs and moving on from them, they don't look like very large leaps, but in retrospect, they look a lot larger than they did at the time,” says Cohen about his career path. “Politics was really my hobby, though. I did take time out from my law practice to go into government. I got my Ph.D. in politics from the practical perspective of the Philadelphia mayor's office, with an additional education at Comcast.”

Before taking his current post in July 2002, Cohen served as a partner in and chairman of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll LLP, one of the 100 largest law firms in the country. But before that, from January 1992 to April 1997, he served as chief of staff to then Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, who is currently serving as Pennsylvania's governor. Cohen played a critical coordinating role in significant budgetary and financial issues, economic development, collective bargaining negotiations, and policy issues relating to the city.

He had gotten to know Comcast's chief executive through his work as a lawyer and during his stint in the Philadelphia mayor's office. But Cohen and Roberts cemented their relationship when both volunteered as co-chairs of Philadelphia 2000, the host committee for the Republican National Convention.

“I'm not sure that I would have done that if Brian wasn't willing to do it, and I think he would say the same,” Cohen says. “Also at that time, my law firm, Ballard Spahr, had done some strategic legal work for Comcast, and so I got a pretty good sense of what Comcast was about, and they got the same look at me.”

Over the next few years, especially after the acquisition of AT&T Broadband, Comcast entered a new phase in its history, but to some extent, it still had the creative infrastructure of a much smaller company. It was at that point that Roberts called Cohen and told him he was creating a position for him. Then Comcast swallowed the old AT&T Broadband—and with that, a true cable giant was born.

“As they suddenly became largest cable company in the country, there would be greater scrutiny and greater administrative challenges,” Cohen says. “I don't think it's any big secret that Brian and Steve [Burke, Comcast's COO] were looking for more people to help assume those greater tasks.”

Most of those tasks seemed to center on the need to maintain public goodwill in both local and national fields. Cohen, a member of the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, chair of the Trustee Board and the Executive Committee of Penn Medicine (an umbrella governance structure overseeing both the University of Pennsylvania Health System and the University's School of Medicine), and a former chairman of the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, would be perfect in being able to tap local resources and organizations in ways that would be felt across the country.

“Comcast has truly recognized that, even though aspects of our business have been deregulated in recent years, it's still subject to regulation of various kinds at various levels. So it's important for our companies to be actively involved with public officials and in their communities,” says Robert Sachs, the outgoing president/CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

One of Cohen's proudest achievements since arriving at Comcast, he says, was spearheading the last two Comcast Cares Days, which is nationally sponsored every October by Comcast for its employees and members of their families and friends to do volunteer work. Last year, 30,000 Comcasters participated in 268 community-service projects in 30 states. Employees donated 180,000 hours of service for that event, making it the country's largest single day of service ever sponsored by a corporation. In total, Comcast contributed $1 million in grants to local partners.

“There are lots of people at Comcast who contribute to this effort, but David has quarterbacked it,” Sachs says. “There's been a very noticeable increase in such activities and in their success since Brian brought him on board a couple of years ago. And that's good for those communities, it's good for Comcast, and it's good for the industry.”